Recently I visited some old friends who moved, a few years ago, from New York City to Portland, Oregon. In New York, Brian and Lara had been the staying-at-homest people I knew, which made sense since they also had the nicest home of anyone I knew — a large apartment on the 45th floor in midtown, with a view of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. Our usual routine was: I’d go over to their place, we’d order takeout, have some wine, and watch something like Battlestar Galactica. But since moving to Portland, they have unexpectedly, at age 50, become rave kids. To hear them explain it, it was a natural progression: They realized they really enjoyed dancing at weddings, and it occurred to them that they didn’t need to wait for a wedding to dance, so they started checking out some local clubs, and now they go almost every weekend. But when you only see a snapshot of your friends once every few years, gradual changes look like abrupt, bizarre metamorphoses: when they first sent me photos of themselves in luminescent costumes with goggles, antennae, and diaphanous capes, I felt like a Philip K. Dick character getting a glimpse into an alternate timeline.
“I have often noticed,” writes Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, “that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind.” One of the things I liked about my old friend Skelly was that whenever I saw him he was always so exactly himself, in fact even more himself than I’d remembered; he always borrowed 20 dollars, was always the first to spill a drink, always put on Led Zeppelin before passing out. He was as consistent as a cartoon character, like Wimpy with his hamburgers-on-credit habit. He stayed the same old Skelly right up until he broke character by unexpectedly dropping dead and revealing himself to have been secretly insane, with a house full of nightmarish detritus. It’s easy to forget that we only ever see facets of other people, never the whole (not even in marriage) — and in those facets what we’re mostly seeing is some aspect of ourselves.
More and more I’m simply interested in seeing how everyone else’s choices turned out, what became of us all.